Last week, few people had heard of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC). Then a silly television story dubbed “Pointergate,” in which police officers accused Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges of throwing gang signs at NOC employee Navell Gordon, hit the fan.
This week the little nonprofit in the heart of West Broadway is reaping the benefits of unintentional fame.
“We’ve been flooded support from all over the world and definitely are feeling the love,” said Becky Dernbach, communications director for NOC. “We’ve received $4,000 or $5,000 in online donations. We’ve received messages of support to pass on to Navell from Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and France, among other places.”
The story, by KSTP-TV’s Jay Kolls, showed a photograph of the mayor and Gordon standing together and pointing at each other. Like people in photos often do these days.
Kolls found a retired cop and got city police union president John Delmonico to allege that the pointing was a gang sign used by the Stick Up Boys that jeopardized officers’ safety on the street. The report pointed out that Gordon has a criminal record, and insinuated he might have gang ties.
The allegation was so ludicrous that two reporters at the Star Tribune ignored it after it was pitched to one of them by someone in law enforcement. But Kolls, seeing a sensational story, bit.
Gordon has acknowledged his criminal past, but said NOC was part of his attempt to get his life straight. When the photo was taken, he was knocking on doors to persuade residents of north Minneapolis to vote, something he can’t do as a felon.
KSTP never mentioned that when the photo was taken, Gordon and Hodges were with another well-known public figure: Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau. The gang sign accusation was a rather bold personal attack in the union’s spitting match with the mayor.
It backfired horribly.
There are legitimate concerns to be raised about Hodges and Harteau. Both have been criticized in recent weeks for not being engaged enough in the community, and Harteau had to defend her frequent business trips out of state.
But in one dumb fell swoop, the police union launched a story that inadvertently showed both of them thoroughly engaged in community outreach, and made them sympathetic characters in a slapstick farce that received national mockery.
The story was so widely repudiated that I was surprised that the Stick Up Boys themselves didn’t hold a news conference to disavow connections to a middle-aged woman who likes to quote Garth Brooks on Twitter. That has to be embarrassing to any legitimate gangster.
In the end, the intended targets of gangstagate, Gordon and Hodges, looked reasonable and thoughtful and NOC got its message out to the nation. Probably not what the cops intended.
NOC has been around since 2010. It works to assure voting rights, appear at the Legislature on living wage and employment issues and spent time this year rallying support for better public transportation options in poor neighborhoods.
The recent attention “was really cool because when we do civil engagement work, it’s not always newsworthy,” said Dernbach.
According to the group’s website, there have been some successes. Though voter turnout was down 5 percent in Minnesota, it was up 6.5 percent in the Fifth Ward, where the NOC office is located. In the two precincts closest to the office, 13 percent more voters turned out than in 2010.
According to Dernbach, everyone from Rep. Keith Ellison to “Daily Show” co-creator and comedian Lizz Winstead gave shoutouts for their work on social media. Even Grammy-winning musician John Legend and author and pundit Dan Savage criticized the KSTP story.
“It’s been great to see the celebration of our civic engagement work through all this madness and resounding support for Navell,” said Dernbach.
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